“Ty is our tomato man,” said Nona Yehia, co-founder and CEO of Vertical Harvest, an innovative three-story greenhouse in downtown Jackson, Wyoming.
As he watched the slender 6’5 “Warner carefully weaving his way through a towering canopy of plants, pulling ripe tomatoes hanging overhead, Yehia smiled proudly.” Ty is good in every part of growing tomato plants. It is truly impressive. ”
Running an indoor farm in the snowy northwest corner of Wyoming wasn’t quite the job Yehia had envisioned years ago. In 2008, after the New York City architect moved to Jackson to start a new company, Yehia wanted to try something innovative in her new community.
“We really wanted to address the issue of the local sustainable food source,”
The idea of climbing
Jackson sits at an elevation of just over 6,000 feet, nestled between Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and Teton National Forest, and its location means there is very little space and a favorable climate for farmers. to grow fresh produce for the bustling tourist city.
“We got together to look for a ready-to-use solution and that’s where the idea of climbing came from,” said Yehia.
“Up” was on a 1/10 acre lot adjacent to an existing parking lot.
In the spring of 2016, Vertical Harvest began growing its first lettuce plants, microgreens and tomatoes. The company’s current staff of 40 now grows all year round and grows an amount equivalent to ten acres of traditional outdoor farming.
Yehia says all of the products grown are distributed to 40 local restaurants and four grocery stores.
“Nona thought it would bring something unique to chefs who can then use and present all year round,” said Ben Westenburg, executive chef and partner at Persephone West Bank in nearby Wilson, Wyoming. “It’s so easy to call up Vertical Harvest and be like, ‘I need salad and tomatoes and some really nice micro veggies.’ And they say, “Okay, we’ll be there tomorrow.”
‘We are associating innovation with a disadvantaged population’
While planning a new greenhouse, Yehia and her design team realized they needed to do more with the project than grow fresh vegetables for the premises.
“There was a bigger problem,” Yehia said. “People with physical and intellectual disabilities in our city who wanted to work, who wanted to find consistent and meaningful work, have not been able to do it. We are coupling innovation with an underserved population and we are truly creating a sea change in perception. of what this population is capable of doing “.
Half of Vertical Harvest workers have physical or intellectual disabilities. Yehia, whose older brother is disabled, says every single employee, including Warner, who is autistic, is critical to keeping Vertical Harvest running.
“We can empower the under-served in our communities simply by giving them a chance and giving them something they can give something in return,” explained Yehia.
“It’s hard for people with disabilities to get a job,” says Sean Stone, who was washing dishes at several restaurants around town before joining Vertical Harvest as a farmer. “I’m happy to help the community and grow them with fresh produce.”
Grow beyond Wyoming
In July, Yehia announced that Vertical Harvest would be expanding to serve a second community. The new farm located in Westbrook, Maine will open in 2022 and will be five times the size of the original Wyoming greenhouse.
The goal is to grow one million pounds of produce each year for local restaurants, grocery stores, hospitals and schools.
“By moving to Maine and having a much larger space, we are excited to replicate the model of supplying local produce on an urban scale,” he says.
Yehia believes this year’s global pandemic has forced consumers and communities across the country to explore new ways to get fresher produce from closer sources.
“Covid has put the spotlight on what we knew ten years ago when we were looking at this vertical model: we have a centralized food system and it has prevented us from getting fresh, local and tasteful food,” Yehia said. “I think Covid-19 has forced people to wonder why this is and how they can now get the locally grown food they like in the summer and get it all year round. That’s exactly what Vertical Harvest is all about.”